Food for Thought

by Destinee Cushnie-Mason

Welcome to “Food for Thought,” a blog series designed to be exactly that! By delving into the intricate connection between gut health and mental well-being, this blog aims to stimulate your mind and your tastebuds and provoke thoughtful reflection on how nutrition influences mood. We aspire to equip you with valuable insights into taking charge of your gut health and empower you with practical dietary adjustments that can profoundly impact your mental wellness. Follow along weekly and savour the exploration!

4. The Zoo Inside You: A Guide to Gut-Friendly Foods

Picture this… you’re on a day trip to the zoo. You can’t wait to see a range of different animals here – the more, the better!

Now imagine that you get to the zoo and it only has lions. Loads of them and no other animals. Pretty disappointing… maybe even a little scary! Where are the elephants, monkeys, giraffes and all the other animals?

Then, imagine that same zoo, but instead it has one elephant, one monkey, one giraffe, one lion and 20 rats. Is that any better? The balance of animals we want to see, and those that we definitely don’t, is all wrong here.

You’re probably thinking, what does this have to do with gut health?? Well, your gut is a bit like a zoo and the microbes are like all the animals. Just like a good zoo has a good number of a range of different animals, a healthy gut has a good number of a range of beneficial microbes.

The first scenario demonstrates a lack of species richness – this is the total number of different species present. In a healthy gut, richness is high and we have a big range of beneficial microbes present in our gut that work with our bodies to keep us healthy.

The second scenario demonstrates a lack of diversity – this is the number of individual bacteria from each species in the gut (or of each animal in the zoo). For a healthy gut, we want a very diverse range of beneficial bacteria present. And we want the numbers of unfriendly bacteria (think – rats) to be kept to a minimum.

Many studies testing people’s microbiomes have linked low species diversity and richness with mental illness and decreased mental health, highlighting the importance of getting our gut bacteria in check. In this blog episode, we’ll find out how to help our gut microbiome flourish and encourage both richness and diversity through prioritising gut-friendly foods.

Plant-Rich Diets and Eating the Rainbow

  • The Power of Plants: There are so many benefits of incorporating a variety of fruits, vegetables, legumes, and nuts/seeds into your diet. The wider the range, the happier your good gut bacteria will be, so take every opportunity to add plants to your meals and snacks.
  • Eating the Rainbow: Consuming a diverse array of colourful plant-based foods maximises the intake of different nutrients. Plants contain chemicals called polyphenols and each colour indicates a different one. These each feed different gut bacteria so expanding the variety of polyphenols consumed promotes gut richness and diversity

Practical Tips:

  • Keep a bag of spinach in the fridge and add a handful to your meals – pastas and curries work great!
  • Sprinkle some of your favourite nuts and seeds on top of your breakfast cereal, yoghurt or porridge. I keep a bag of mixed nuts in the cupboard at all times!
  • Stock up on frozen mixed vegetables and add a scoop to your dinner. These are great as they’re often 3-4 different colours.
  • Apples and bananas are fantastic ready-to-eat snacks for on the go. Or keep some cherry tomatoes or fresh berries in the fridge for a munch at home.
  • Herbs and spices count! Jazz up your recipes for a flavour and health boost. Dried is fine, try a teaspoon of mixed herbs or basil in your spag bol.

Fermented Foods and Probiotics

  • Probiotic Powerhouses: We previously discussed prebiotics when we explored the importance of fibre. Probiotics are foods or supplements containing the live microbes that feast on the prebiotics. Having both pre- and probiotics is vital for gut diversity and enhancing immune system function. While many studies look into probiotic supplements for mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety, I recommend boosting your gut with probiotic foods instead for the same positive effect. This is cheaper and more delicious!
  • Fermented Foods for Gut Balance: ‘Fermented’ may not sound the most appetising, but it just means that good bacteria have been allowed to flourish in the food. Try and introduce small amounts of fermented foods gradually into your diet like yogurt, kefir, kimchi, and sauerkraut as sources of beneficial probiotics that support gut health.

Practical Tips:

  • Incorporate a daily shot of kefir (a tangy milk drink), or an actimel or yakult into your morning routine. Hint: Kefir is much cheaper in the international section of supermarket fridges!
  • Eat yoghurt with some frozen berries for a pre- and probiotic punch! Plain yoghurt is best with some honey if needed.
  • If you’re a cheese fiend, pick cheeses that say raw, unpasteurised, or probiotic on the label – for the biggest benefit.
  • When you’re grabbing a supermarket meal deal, swap your typical drink choice for a fizzy kombucha.
  • Sauerkraut and kimchi are definitely acquired tastes but they make amazing additions to salads, sandwiches (kimchi grilled cheese is delicious!) or noodles.

Challenges for the week:

Count the number of plant foods you eat this week. Try and increase that number by 5 by next week.
How colourful is your diet? Can you add some more green, red, purple, or orange to your plate? Tell us about your delicious rainbow in the comments below.

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